Your Teenager Drinks Alcohol or Does Drugs: What to do?

Teenager Drinks Alcohol or Does Drugs

I found out that my teenager drinks alcohol or does drugs. Help! What should I do?

Rebellious and other distressing behaviors often characterize the teen years. Normal teen experiences usually cause them. It might be raging hormones. Perhaps dating problems. Possibly the desire for independence. And the list goes on.

Much of this is a natural part of growing up. Yet it can be stressful and challenging to us parents.

Expert Advice

Maia Szalavitz is a science writer at Time magazine. She has written books and articles about dealing with troubled young people. Szalavitz writes that

If you suspect that your teen is using drugs or drinking and that this may be behind her bad behavior, it’s always important to keep things in context. Although since the ‘just say no’ era we’ve heard that any drinking or other drug use at all is a sign of serious trouble, in fact, most teens will try marijuana and drinking before they graduate high school.

So it’s one thing if your daughter stays out past curfew and comes home appearing drunk once or twice yet has high grades and a generally good attitude. But it’s quite another if she stays out later and later each week and her grades are plummeting. If your teen appears to be drunk once every other month, it’s a far different situation from his coming home wasted every day. It’s also important to know that most of the time marijuana use and drinking by tens doesn’t signal addiction.


Research shows that the vast majority of people who drank or took drugs as teenagers or young adults do not become alcoholics or addicts. Only a tiny minority will not mature out of alcohol or drug abuse.

Don’t Over-react

Parents who over-react risk the danger of doing more harm than good. Going into unnecessary treatment can be very damaging to young people.

Avoid Unnecessary Treatment

The following letter from an adult woman shows the tragic consequences of her unnecessary treatment.

I was put in several different treatment centers at the age of 14. Although I drank alcohol only three times and used marijuana twice. My denial of further usage was a Catch-22 for me. It ensured my place in treatment, because the “professionals” were operating under the belief that if I denied using I must be an alcoholic.

After being discharged unsuccessfully from one center because I would not admit that I was an alcoholic, I was admitted to an in-patient facility to help break through my denial.

At the last treatment center I was told that I could not go home until I admitted that I was an alcoholic and agreed to go to AA meetings.

She explained that

At the age of 14, unsure of my identity and place in the world, I began to believe that I was wrong, maybe I was an alcoholic. I began to think that maybe “blackout” caused me to forget. So I agreed to attend AA. This began a 12 year membership in AA, from the age of 14 to age 26.

AA doesn’t tolerate asking questions. So I began to “sneak” and do some research of my own about diagnostic criteria for alcohol abuse and dependence.

At this time I was working in a treatment center. I also received my degree in psychology. Upon researching the diagnostic criteria, I found that I met none of it. I began to do more research and left AA.

Consider Your Actions Carefully

teenager drinks alcohol

Maia Szalavitz

It may be difficult but it’s absolutely essential to keep lines of communication open. If any actions are necessary, Szlavitz says that they should be the least intensive. And she urges that ‘When you consider taking an action aimed at changing teens’ behavior, always consider not only what will happen if they comply, but what will happen if they don’t and whether those consequences are more likely to hinder or help them in the long run.’

She explains that, for example,

an arrest for drug possession may mean the denial of future federal college financial aid. If you are considering having your child arrested to teach a lesson, you may well want to consider a lesson that is less likely to affect the youngster’s ability to attend college. Having a college education, of course, is linked to a lower risk of addiction and for relapse among those who do get addicted. Your goal of getting your child through college is one of the best ways to reduce the odds of long-term addiction — even if it doesn’t reduce the immediate risk of drug use or abuse.

These are important considerations if your teenager drinks alcohol or does drugs.

A Lesson from Others

In many societies most people drink daily but there are few resulting problems. In those groups children learn how to drink in moderation within the home. They do so from an early age from their parents. This is legal in almost half of all U.S. states.

People in countries  around the world think it’s better to learn how to drink in the parents’ house than in a fraternity house.


Resources for  Your Teenager Drinks Alcohol

Hanson, D. Preventing Alcohol Abuse. Westport, CT: Praeger, 1995.

Hanson, D. Alcohol Education. Westport, CT: Praeger, 1996.

Hayes, L. Parenting Influences on Adolescent Alcohol Use. Melbourne : Australian Institute of Family Studies, 2004.

Houghton, E., and Roche, A. Learning about Drinking. Philadelphia: Brunner-Routledge, 2001.

Orygen Youth Health. Parenting Guidelines for Adolescent Alcohol Use.  Melbourne: Orygen Youth Health Research Centre, University of Melbourne, 2010.